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ABBA

From Academic Kids

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Abba.jpg
ABBA (clockwise from top: Benny, Björn, Frida, Agnetha) on the cover of their album The Definitive Collection (2001)

ABBA was a Swedish pop music group. They remain the most successful Swedish music group, and were one of the most popular groups of their era in the world.

Formed around 1970, ABBA included Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (nicknamed "Frida"). They became widely known after they won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with "Waterloo". During most of their most successful years, the group's members comprised two married couples, Björn and Agnetha, and Benny and Frida. The group split up in 1982.

Their name is an acronym formed from the initial letters of the names of the group's members, and is most often written ABBA. The first 'B' in the logo version of the band's name was reversed on the band's promotional material from 1976 onwards.

Contents

Pre-history

Andersson was a member of the Hep Stars, a Swedish rock/pop band who were very popular in their native country during the 1960s. The band was modeled after various US and UK groups of the time, such as Herman's Hermits, The Who and The Rolling Stones, and had a huge following, particularly among teenage girls. At the same time, Björn Ulvaeus fronted a skiffle group, the Hootenanny Singers, with an altogether softer and more easy-listening sound than the Hep Stars. Nevertheless, the singers' paths crossed on a number of occasions, and they decided to write songs together. One of these, a track called "Isn't It Easy To Say", became a big hit for the Hep Stars, and Björn sometimes guested with the band on tour. It was even suggested that the two bands merge, but this never happened. Instead, Stig Anderson, manager of the Hootenanny Singers and founder of Polar Music, saw more potential in Benny and Björn working together, and encouraged them to write more songs and create an album together, eventually called Lycka ("happiness") when released on the Polar label.

In the meantime, Agnetha Fältskog, the youngest member of ABBA, was a pop phenomenon in her own right, writing and performing her first Swedish hits in her teens. She also played Mary Magdalene in the Swedish production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Agnetha, noted by many critics and fellow songwriters to be a good composer though she personally considered it hard work, wrote and performed light pop songs in the Schlager style, as well recording cover versions of popular songs. As a result, Agnetha went on a tour of the Swedish folkparks, which was the main "live circuit" at that time. It was only a matter of time before she bumped into the Hootenanny Singers on their folkpark tours, and so she met and eventually fell in love with Björn. They married in 1971, in what was the Swedish celebrity wedding of the year, with huge publicity.

The final piece of what was to become ABBA was provided by housewife Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad, who worked as a cabaret singer part time. She decided to enter a talent competition, which she won. On that particular night, Sweden changed over from driving on the left of the road to the right, and the TV companies put on a series of "big" shows to encourage people to stay off the roads. As a result, Frida was invited to appear on TV with her winning song. The TV exposure brought her to the attention of the wider public for the first time, and so her musical career took off. It was not long before she was noticed by Benny Andersson, and the two met on the inevitable folkpark tour. They became lovers and Benny invited Anni-Frid to sing backing vocals with Agnetha on the Lycka album. The two women were uncredited for this work.

The early years

By the early 1970s, even though Björn and Agnetha were married, they both pursued their own separate musical careers. However, Stig was very ambitious and was determined to break into the mainstream international market - a feat never before achieved by a Swedish pop act. As a result he encouraged Björn and Benny to write a song for the Eurovision Song Contest for the 1972 year, which was performed by Lena Anderson. The song, "Say It With a Song", came only third in the contest selection rounds, but was a huge hit in a number of countries, which convinced Stig he was on the right track.

Björn and Benny persevered with creating hit songs, experimenting with new sounds and vocal arrangements, and started to have some success in Japan. One of the songs they came up with was "People Need Love", featuring guest vocals by the girls that were given much greater prominence than previously. Everyone involved felt that it was a very good and new sound, and Stig decided to try releasing it as a single. The record was credited to "Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid". The song was a moderate hit, but enough to convince them that they were on to something.

The following year, the group decided to have another crack at Eurovision, this time with the song "Ring, Ring". For this one, the studio work was handled by Michael B. Tretow, who was permitted to try some experiments to come up with a Phil Spector-like "wall of sound". The result was the wholly new Abba Sound. For the contest, Stig arranged an English translation of the lyrics by Neil Sedaka, and they felt it was a sure-fire winner. However, it wasn't to be—it failed to be selected for the contest, coming in third yet again. Nevertheless the proto-group decided to put out an album titled Ring Ring, and again it carried the awkward naming of "Björn, Benny, Agnetha & Frida". The album did well and the Ring Ring single was a huge hit in many parts of Europe—but Stig felt that the true breakthrough would only be to have a UK or US hit. About this time, Stig started to refer to the group privately and publicly as "ABBA", having grown fed up with the unwieldy names. This was done as a joke at first, as Abba is the name of a well-known fish canning company in Sweden. However, since the fish canners were more or less unknown outside Sweden, Stig felt the name was OK in international markets, and so it stuck.

Eurovision and after

In 1974, they decided to try Eurovision once more, and were inspired by the growing glam rock scene in the UK, and tracks such as Wizzard's "See My Baby Jive". As a result, they started work on "Waterloo", an unashamedly glam-style pop track, again utilising the wall of sound approach mastered by Michael B. Tretow. This time they were far better prepared for the contest, and already had an album's worth of material released by the time of the show, held in Brighton, England. This time there was no mistake—the song won hands down and catapulted the group into the British consciousness for the first time. This time they had a catchy name—ABBA—and people could buy a whole album (Waterloo) straight away.

The song was a UK hit, the group's first number one. It also was released in the US, where it reached #6. Momentum was hard to maintain, and follow-up singles did nowhere near as well, because the group was overstretched and unable to promote these songs convincingly in any one territory. The new songs were also perhaps not as strong, as their output at this stage was more derivative than later. It wasn't until "SOS", a song originally written by Benny and Björn for one of Agnetha's solo projects, that ABBA scored another UK top ten. This song consolidated the band's presence in the UK, and they no longer were dismissed as a one-hit wonder.

Things really took off in 1975, with every release charting solidly, and yielded several more number one hits, including "Mamma Mia". The band even released their somewhat hubristically titled Greatest Hits album, despite having had only five Top 40 hits in the UK and the U.S. Included on the album was "Fernando", which had been a Swedish-language hit single for Anni-Frid, and included on her 1975 Benny-produced solo LP, Frida Ensam. Arguably one of ABBA's best-known tracks, "Fernando" did not appear on the Swedish or Australian releases of Greatest Hits. In Sweden, the song would wait until 1982's The Singles-The First Ten Years to appear in an English-language version credited to ABBA, and in Australia, the track would be included in that country's release of their 1976 album, Arrival.

Arrival was polished more highly than any so far, and represented a new level of accomplishment in both songwriting and studio work. Hit after hit flowed from the album - "Money, Money, Money", "Knowing Me, Knowing You", and their most enduring and definitive hit, "Dancing Queen". By this time, ABBA were massive in both the UK and Australia, but still enjoyed only moderate recognition in the U.S.; "Dancing Queen" remains ABBA's only hit to ever reach #1 in that country.

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Abbamovieposter.jpg
Movie poster for The Movie - The Album featured the same artwork.
By this time, the ABBA sound was synonymous with European pop, and started to be widely copied by groups such as Brotherhood of Man, and later, Bucks Fizz. It was felt that it was necessary to copy ABBA's sound and two girl/two boy approach in order to win Eurovision, and as Brotherhood of Man won in 1976, and Bucks Fizz in 1981 it seems they had a point. ABBA, meanwhile, were not standing still, and followed up Arrival with the more complex 1977 release, ABBA - The Album, released to coincide with the feature film of their Australian tour, ABBA - The Movie. This album was, if anything, even more polished than Arrival, but was less well received by the critics. However, the hits continued to flow—"Take a Chance On Me", "Thank You For the Music" and "The Name of the Game" were all chart toppers.

Rise and fall

By 1978, ABBA were a megagroup. They built Polar Music Studio, a new state-of-the-art studio in Stockholm, and it was in demand from numerous other bands - Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door was recorded there, for example. The single "Summer Night City" stopped just short of the top the charts, but set the stage for ABBA's foray into the disco sound, with the album Voulez-Vous. This release started to mark the beginning of ABBA's decline in Europe, while getting them considerably more attention in the U.S. Hits still came—"Does Your Mother Know", "Voulez-Vous", "Chiquitita" and "I Have a Dream" were all taken from this album, but in the light of Punk and New Wave in the UK, many felt that ABBA were past their prime and were sounding a little dated.

ABBA toured the U.S. in 1979, with huge audiences, but the U.S. breakthrough was perhaps too little, too late. The next release, Super Trouper (1980), again achieved respectable sales but it sounded to some as if the group themselves were running out of ideas. Nonetheless, the title track and "The Winner Takes It All" became hits for the group, both topping the charts in the UK. It is ironic that Super Trouper, and their final studio album, The Visitors (1981) show a songwriting maturity and depth of feeling that is distinctly lacking on their earlier recordings - the title track of The Visitors addresses the topic of holding secret meetings against the approval of Communist governments in the Soviet satellite states for example, and other tracks treat the subjects of aging, loss of innocence, one's child growing up and so on. The Euro-style lightweight pop was light-years behind, though the catchy melodies of these songs disguised their depth.

Despite a feeling that ABBA was in decline, the band was still achieving huge audiences into the early 1980s, and might have continued indefinitely if it wasn't for the fact that on a personal level, the married couples of the group were falling apart. For a while it was possible to keep personal and professional lives separate, and it was under this arrangement that the last two albums were recorded. However, the songs of the time—such as "The Winner Takes It All" and "One Of Us"—gave a glimpse of the personal difficulties the group's members were facing. In time, it was unsustainable, and the band decided to finally split in 1982. The Visitors was to be the last "proper" album the group recorded. In the summer of 1982 Björn and Benny decided to put two hitherto unreleased songs ("The Day Before You Came" and "Under Attack") onto a double album titled The Singles-The First Ten Years. "The Day Before You Came" was literally the last song the band ever recorded, though there have been many compilations, re-releases and a live album put out by the record companies since. To this day, along with pop group Boney M, they remain the most widely-known western group in the non-European world, including India, Africa and South-East Asia.

Fashion and videos

ABBA were renowned for their colorful costumes (the epitome of 1970s fashion), and also for the videos which accompanied some of their biggest hits—these being among the earliest examples of the genre. Most of ABBA's videos were directed by Lasse Hallström, as was ABBA - The Movie (Hallström would later direct such films as My Life as a Dog, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat). ABBA chose to make them because they preferred not to make so many personal appearances in all the countries where the song was likely to be a hit. Some of these videos became classics, not only for the costumes, or for the juxtaposition of the profile of one of the girls overlapping the full face of the other, and despite the overly judicious use of blue eyeshadow. Most of their videos can be seen on the DVDs ABBA Gold and The Definitive Collection.

Several videos were spoofed by others; for example, the video of "Knowing Me, Knowing You" was satirised on the BBC comedy show, Not the Nine O'Clock News, as "Super Dooper". The title Knowing Me, Knowing You was also borrowed for a spoof chat show on BBC, starring Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge, who always entered the studio shouting "Aha!", this being the next word in the lyrics of the original song.

After ABBA

Björn and Benny wrote the music for the West End show, Chess, in partnership with lyricist Tim Rice. This opened in 1984 in London, and ran for three years. The show also opened on Broadway in the U.S. in 1988, but having had the order of its songs tampered with (as well as many of the lyrics and more than a little of the storyline), the show closed within weeks. Björn and Benny had often expressed a wish to write a musical, inspired by the successes throughout the 1970s of Rice and his former collaborator Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

(Benny and Björn's first effort had been a so-called "mini-musical", The Girl with The Golden Hair, performed by the group during their 1977 tour of Europe and Australia. Excerpts can be seen in ABBA - The Movie and heard on ABBA - The Album.)

Björn and Benny followed Chess with Kristina från Duvemåla in 1995, a musical co-written with Lars Rudolfsson and based on the Emigrants tetralogy by Swedish novelist Vilhelm Moberg. Mamma Mia!, a musical based around ABBA's songs, premiered in London in 1999. And in 2003, Benny and Björn's first musical was given new life in a Swedish-language version, Chess På Svenska.

Both Agnetha and Frida went on to have some solo success after ABBA split—Frida in 1982 with the Phil Collins-produced album Something's Going On, and Agnetha in 1983 with Wrap Your Arms Around Me. Both were moderately successful. Both persevered with further releases in the 1980s, but eventually decided to retire.

After releasing I Stand Alone in 1987, Agnetha withdrew from public life and refused to give interviews. However, in April of 2004, she emerged to release a disc of cover songs titled "My Colouring Book." It was met with mediocre reception, but debuted on the top spot in Sweden and at No 6 in Germany. In Finland it went gold, in Great Britain it sold enough to receive a silver disc.

Frida released Shine, produced by Steve Lillywhite in 1984, but it was not until 1996 that she released her final album to date, the Swedish-language Djupa Andetag, which was met with great success in Sweden, though it went unknown internationally. In September 2004 Frida had recorded "The Sun Will Shine Again" with former Deep Purple member Jon Lord on his latest album, making some rare appearances on German television.

ABBA experienced a resurgence in the 1990s after being largely forgotten during the 1980s. To some extent this was in an ironic way—fondly remembered for being so naff they were good; yet for others it was the recognition that while ABBA were frequently dismissed by the critics during their heyday as a lightweight pop act, and sneered at by punk and New Wave musicians, in fact they were masters of their art - the three minute pop song - something very few others can claim to have been as successful at. Björn and Benny were finally recognised in 2001 with an Ivor Novello Award for their songwriting. Many former punk and New Wave artistes have since admitted a fondness and respect for ABBA they were unwilling to own up to in their early years.

On April 6th 2004 three of the former ABBA members (Björn, Benny and Frida) showed up together in London for the 30th anniversary of their Eurovison Song Contest win in 1974. They appeared together on stage after the fifth anniversary performance of Mamma Mia!. In November 2004, Björn, in an interview with the German magazine Bunte, said that a reunion would not satisfy ABBA's many fans, even though there are legions of fans around the world that often clamour for such a reunion.

In February 2005, all four members of ABBA appeared in public together for the first time since 1986 for the gala opening of Mamma Mia! in Stockholm.

Trivia

  • Depite being ABBA's songwriters, neither Benny nor Björn possessed the ability to write music down on paper. Only Agnetha, herself a songwriter, did (as revealed in a Dick Cavett interview with the group).
  • The sound track of the successful Australian film Muriel's Wedding (1994) contained several ABBA songs, which were featured prominently in the movie, first when the two female leads lip sync "Waterloo" and secondly when the wedding features an orchestral arrangement of "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do."
  • The ABBA tribute band Björn Again became so successful that as of 2004 there are five 'Björn Again's performing in various parts of the world. The original Björn Again have now been touring for 15 years, longer than the original group.
  • A Swedish band, the A-Teens, started their career in pop music borrowing ABBA's arrangement of two men and two women. The Swedish teenagers launched their careers with an album containing only ABBA covers.
  • In 2000, ABBA were reported to have turned down an offer of approximately one billion dollars (U.S.) to do a reunion tour.
  • Estimates of ABBA's total worldwide sales vary from 140 to 500 million (There is no reliable source for this information). ABBA's U.S. sales were 20 million. ABBA's UK sales were 25 million.
  • ABBA's 1976 hit single "Fernando" currently holds the record for the longest weeks spent at number one in Australia (along with The Beatles' "Hey Jude").
  • In addition to being an acronym, the name "ABBA" is also a palindrome. In 1975, ABBA's "SOS" became the first song with a palindromic title recorded by a group with a palindromic name to hit the pop charts.

Tribute Artists & Bands

See also

External links


Preceded by:
Anne-Marie David
Winner of the Eurovision Song Contest
1974
Succeeded by:
Teach-In

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